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By: Justine Baakman
A three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently reaffirmed a snow contractor’s protection from liability during ongoing snow events. More specifically, the plaintiff initiated a personal injury suit in Pennsylvania state court after slipping and falling on snow in the early morning hours during an ongoing snow event. The plaintiff arrived on the subject property – an industrial complex – around 5:30am on the date in question. It was during his walk in the parking lot that he slipped and fell on unplowed snow totaling between 5 ½ and 6 inches. Notably, the plaintiff did not dispute that his fall occurred during an ongoing snow event.
Prior to the start of the snow event at issue, the property owner had entered into a contract with a snow removal company to perform snow and ice removal services. On the date at issue, that snow contractor had begun performing services approximately one hour prior to the plaintiff’s fall. However, snow removal services were not fully completed by the time the plaintiff arrived on the property – primarily due to the ongoing nature of the snow event.
Following the close of discovery, the snow contractor filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the “hills and ridges” doctrine protected it from liability for the plaintiff’s alleged injury. More specifically, the snow contractor argued that the “hills and ridges” doctrine – which protects owners or occupiers of land from liability for generally slippery conditions as the result of snow and ice if the owner or occupier has not permitted that snow and ice to unreasonably accumulate into ridges or elevations – protected it from liability for the plaintiff’s alleged injury as a function of the ongoing nature of the snow event in question.
After hearing oral argument on the issues, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the snow contractor. The plaintiff appealed that ruling to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, arguing that the trial court erred in applying the “hills and ridges” doctrine to the snow contractor because the contractor did not own or occupy the land. Therefore, the plaintiff argued, the snow contractor did not qualify for liability protection under the “hills and ridges” doctrine.
In reaffirming the trial court’s granting of summary judgment, the Pennsylvania Superior Court noted that it is well-established Pennsylvania law that an independent contractor in possession of an area of land necessary to perform its work under a contract replaces the owner of the property while performing that work. During that time, the independent contractor assumes the responsibilities and obligations of the property owner while the property owner foregoes its right to possess and control the land.
As such, the Pennsylvania Superior Court reasoned, the snow contractor at issue was operating as an independent contractor in possession and control of the subject property at the time of the plaintiff’s fall. Therefore, it was entitled to the protections offered by the “hills and ridges” doctrine to occupiers and possessors of land. As such, the snow contractor was entitled to the granting of summary judgment due to the ongoing nature of the snow event at issue. The court’s decision was a key one for snow contractors, allowing them to continue to utilize this important defense.
If you have any questions or would like more information about the “hills and ridges” doctrine, please contact Justine Baakman at [email protected].